4 Irresistible Summer Reads for Food Lovers

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It’s the dog days of summer, time for lounging by the pool with a novel, reading on a blanket near your cabin, or hanging in your hammock with a book.

The point is to be outside. My favorite place to read food writing is my sun deck’s lounge chair, perhaps followed by a nap. There’s something luxurious about dreaming on a summer day.

So what’s good to read right now? I’m not talking about summer cookbooks. There are lots of lists of those. Instead, here’s a mix of novels, memoir and non-fiction narratives, some old and new, that are worth your time when you’re prone in the sun or sitting in dappled shade:

1. The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones. It’s been out since 2007, but I resisted reading this book for years, even though friends kept telling me about it.

I finally read this novel and couldn’t put it down. It’s a love story about a food writer who goes to Beijing for a magazine assignment and meets a chef. I also learned about the Chinese culinary arts and ancient food culture and enjoyed every minute. The author was a freelancer for Gourmet magazine who travelled to China frequently, and she’s a powerful storyteller.

The-Language-of-Backlava2. The Language of Baklava, by Diana Abu-Jaber. Sensuous and lyrical, this 2004 memoir about growing up in America with a food-obsessed Jordanian father includes rich descriptions of family meals. I discovered it after reading a short online story by the author that stunned me so much I had to buy her book. I too, had an immigrant father obsessed with food, and this touching, funny, and unusual story spoke to me in so many ways.


History-of-Soul-Food3. Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, by Adrian Miller. No ordinary food historian, Adrian Miller was a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and a senior policy analyst. He’s also a Southern Foodways Alliance board member and a barbecue judge. And he lives in Denver, Colorado, not exactly a hotbed of Southern food.

If you’ve ever wondered how soul food is different from Southern food, or how fried chicken became incorporated into American culture, this is your book. Miller’s meticulously researched book explores identity issues, bad health raps, and African-American culture. It’s surprisingly entertaining. He takes you through chapters on chitlins, yams, greens and “red drinks” — perhaps the most hilarious chapter of all. As he says, “I know this is controversial, but I think that red Kool-Aid is soul food’s official drink.”

I can’t wait to meet Miller at the Association of Food Journalist’s annual conference in Memphis this September.

Natural-Prophets4. Natural Prophets: From Health Foods to Whole Foods — How the Pioneers of the Industry Changed the Way We Eat and Reshaped American Business, by Joe Dobrow. A publisher sent me this book and it took me a while to get to it because the cover is not so inviting.

However, if you remember the birth of the American health food industry, or shopped at health food stores and coops, or you buy natural food products, this is a fascinating read. It tells the story of the risks seemingly ordinary people took to found such companies as Whole Foods Market, Celestial Seasonings tea, and Silk soy products.

If you want to change the way that people eat, read about how these committed folks did it. They created a multi-million dollar industry too. It’s inspiring, and Dobrow tells a good tale.

How about you? Which food-related books are you reading this summer? Tell me your favorite.

 (Disclosure: This post contains Amazon links.)


    • diannejacob says

      Thank you. Oh yes, the bedside pile. I have one of those. And books lining a bookshelf in my bedrooom, and another pile in my office…

      I suppose if I wasn’t surrounded by books I would feel that something is wrong.

    • diannejacob says

      Me too! Although I want to read something I’ve never read before. Sometimes the same themes get to me.

      I didn’t know about this book! I will read it on your recommendation alone. Thanks.

  1. says

    I didn’t know any of them. The first two books sounds great for me.
    I’m almost ready for holidays. When I’ come back, I’ll look for them.

    • diannejacob says

      You could see if the first two have been translated to Italian. Worth a shot. If not, and you can manage them in English, that is impressive.

  2. says

    Thanks for these luscious recommendations, Dianne. I’ve been reading a lot of food-related books the past few months and am ready for more. Two of my favorites so far: Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller and Cooked by Michael Pollan.

    • diannejacob says

      Extra Virginity is one of my favorites, Janice. I have bought it as gifts for people, and as a result I try to buy only local olive oil. Re Cooked… not one of his best books, in my opinion, but the Omnivore’s Dilemma is a classic.

  3. says

    Thank you for an on-time solution to my reading needs. I’m re-reading B. Kingsolver’s “Bean Trees” (done) and “Pigs in Heaven” (starting today), so my fiction needs are met, gloriously. But this fills up an empty spot next to fiction, handsomely and expansively. Big Amen! to Adrian Miller’s “Soul Food: The Surprisng Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time”; he is a good friend, so I cannot claim a smidgen of objectivity; but you can. Excellent book, and with recipes! I started “The Last Chinese Chef” several years ago, and set it aside after a few chapters. After reading your comments, I’m going to begin it again. Suspecting it was a Right Book, Wrong Time, for me. I love Diane Abu-Jaber’s “Birds of Paradise”, and did not know about her memoir, which I cannot wait to read. And then the salad book: would not have earned my attention, but now it has. Thanks for this, and your recent post on links a’plenty for writers/food people. You always rock.

    • diannejacob says

      Oh yes, Nancie, I read both of those books long ago and loved them. Did you read Kingsolver’s more recent one: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? I enjoyed that too.

      I have been wanting to read Birds of Paradise and just requested it from the library. Thanks for the reminder. I don’t know if it’s a food book but I want to read more of Abu-Jabar’s writing.

      Funny how you are calling it “The Salad Book.” I can see why, based on the cover. It looks like an Earthbound Farms plastic container of lettuces, which was probably the point.

      Will I see you in Sept. at the AFJ conference? Maybe you can introduce me to Adrian. We have only corresponded on Twitter so far.

  4. says

    I love reading books about food and people who love food. Recently finished reading One Soufflé at a Time by Anne Willan and loved it. Now reading How to Eat a Small Country by Amy Finley. Best so far this year is Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr – couldn’t put it down. Will definitely check out your suggestions, especially The Last Chinese Chef.

    • diannejacob says

      Oh yes, that is a great book, Carol. I had the pleasure of telling Anne Willan in person how much I enjoyed it at IACP this past spring. It’s funny how tastes vary. I wasn’t that thrilled with How to Eat a Small Country. I thought Provence, 1970 was well written, but overpromised and underdelivered.

  5. says

    Dianne, synchronicity! I just read The Last Chinese Chef too and loved it! Enjoyed learning about the sublime nuances of real Chinese cuisine and how a dish may subtly make reference to poetry and history. So much that an outsider misses.

    Slight correction: The movie Lost in Translation was not based on Moines’ book of the same name (which I read right after The Last Chinese Chef). The movie, written by Sofia Coppola, takes place in Tokyo. Moines’ is about China again and the main character’s struggle as an interpreter and outsider to a culture she loves. (As an writer/interpreter I was also intrigued with that book).

    I recently read The Widow Clicquot, the story of my favorite Champagne and the determined woman who wouldn’t give in to a nineteenth century glass ceiling.

    • diannejacob says

      Small world, Anna! I like the way you describe it — how a dish may subtly make reference to poetry and history.

      Re Lost in Translation — oh my gosh, it is a coincidence that her book had the same title as the movie. You are so right. I will have to change that. It sounds like a great read also.

      The Widow Clicquot sounds fabulous! I’m putting it on my list.

  6. says

    I’m reading Paul Greenberg’s American Catch. Greenberg’s casual voice makes seafood storytelling easy to swallow.

    I’m always on the hunt for a good summer read. Thanks for the list Dianne. I almost forgot about Diana Abu-Jaber! I saw her at the 2011 Key West Literary Seminar-she read from The Language of Baklava. Touching and poignant, lyrical voice. I hope my library has a copy.

    Happy summer reading.

    • diannejacob says

      Oh yes, I’ve read a lot about that book, including an excerpt. He makes some fascinating arguments. The kind where you think “Well duh!” but it takes more than that to change the system.

      Yes, please read the whole memoir! That reading only whetted your appetite.

    • diannejacob says

      You’re welcome. I hope you enjoy them.

      I have read Yes Chef but not the new one by Marcus Samuelsson. I enjoyed the former memoir immensely. He has a unique story and a humbleness that I adore.

  7. says

    Great list Dianne, I have Last Chinese Chef packed for vacation now! My all-time favorite memoir/cookbook is Seventh Chinese Daughter, fascinating story of Cecilia Chang’s bourgeoise life in China in 1920-30’s, fleeing from the Japanese invasion, to fame in San Francisco as owner of The Mandarin. (I’m sure you know the story)

    • diannejacob says

      Oh good. I hope you get to read it outside somewhere.

      I have not read Seventh Chinese Daughter, but I’ve read a lot about it. I can relate to the story of fleeing the Japanese invasion because of my parents. Okay, I’m putting it on my list. Thanks. And have a great vacation!

  8. says

    Fascinating selections, Dianne, thank you!

    I’m in the middle of Curry: A Tale of Cooks & Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham — a history of Indian food and how it changed with the Portuguese traders, and then with the British Raj, and it’s place in the world today. Great if you’re keen on food history.

    Enjoy the rest of your summer reads!

    • diannejacob says

      Sounds terrific, Donna. I have ancestors who lived in India during the time of the Raj, so it sounds good to me. Thanks.

      Re summer reads, now trying to get through Wolf Hall, which my book group is reading.

  9. says

    The Soul Food book sounds like a fun read. I always wondered just exactly how chitlins were made and what the fascination is with Kool-Aid – in any color. Sounds like the opposite of the Natural Prophets Food book.

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